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John Dee - Conjurer, Alchemist or Occultist?

John Dee (13 July 1527 - 1609) was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, teacher, occultist and alchemist.

He was the court astronomer for, and advisor to, Elizabeth I, and spent much of his time on Alchemy, the Divination of Future Events and Objects with Magical properties.

As an antiquarian, he had one of the largest libraries in England at the time.


As a political advisor, he advocated for the founding of English colonies in the New World to form a "British Empire", a term he is credited with coining.



John Dee is famously known as the ‘conjurer’ to Elizabeth I, but there is more to the 16th-century medieval philosopher than having a reputation for Casting Lots, staring into Bowls of Water and Delving into the mystical world Future Prophecy.


He was also a mathematical genius and one who was uncannily accurate in what was then, during the late Tudor period, the new science of physics and the exploration of chemical compounds.


Like his near-contemporaries Nostradamus and Cornelius Agrippa, also known for their interests in astrology and the world beyond the mortal.


These inquisitive men trod a dangerous path at a time when Predicting the Future, or conversing with the dead, could mean being accused of Heresy and Punishment by Death.



Dee used several oracles in order to divine advice that was given to the Queen.


These oracles included objects such as:


  • Bowls of water; a precursor to the crystal balls used by modern gypsies.

  • Star Maps of the Zodiac

  • The casting of Lots (Dice)

  • Tarot Cards

  • And in particular, the device he called the Trinity Spirit Board (pictured above).


Facsimile editions of this arcane triangular device became popular in the Victorian era amongst occultists.


This is where the saying originates "Things always come in Three's"


As a young man at Trinity College, Cambridge he gained a reputation as a ‘magician’ and who with his knowledge of biology, physics and chemistry even produced three impressive stage effects for a production of Aristophanes' play Peace.


The star of this spectacle was a giant mechanical beetle that shocked the audience so much they believed Dee must have conspired with the devil to create it.


Royal patronage

Dee’s patronage by aristocrats and royalty didn’t happen until after he graduated from Trinity College and travelled extensively around Europe lecturing on the subject of the Greek mathematician Euclid. His scholarly work brought him into contact with the most famous names of the day who included astronomers and map makers.


Back in London, Dee investigated objects that were supposed to have magical properties (see Trinity Spirit Board) and may have been his introduction to the mystical world.

Dee saw his star ascending when he made a favourable impression on King Henry’s legitimate son and boy King Edward VI.


The strong influence prophecy and astrology held over Henry VII did not diminish throughout the Tudor period and was as prominent an obsession with his son Henry VIII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I.

When Elizabeth I took the English throne, she consulted Dee on a regular basis. He even chose her coronation date.


During the Spanish Armada in 1588, when the Spanish ships approached England, Dee suggested waiting, correctly predicting that the Spanish fleet would be severely hit by the storms. Most of the Spanish ships were lost or damaged and, when the storms subsided, the English ships disposed of the rest. It was Dee’s greatest moment.

Dee eventually left Elizabeth's service and went on a quest for additional knowledge in the deeper realms of the occult and supernatural. He travelled through Europe and was accused of spying for the English crown.


Upon his return to England, he found his home and library vandalised.


When Elizabeth died in 1603, Dee lost his ability to defend himself from his many enemies – including the queen’s successor James I


He died in poverty in London and his gravesite is unknown.


Brilliant astrologers or clairvoyants?

There persists a view that medieval astrologers like Dee were simply eccentric wizard-type characters known for casting lots, concocting potions of a dubious nature, divining the future with bowls of water and practicing clairvoyancy through the dark arts with arcane and esoteric objects.


In reality men like John Dee, forever questioning the universe were foremost professors of maths, geometry, astronomy and early explorers into the world of physics and chemicals.


Some were also interested in the works of mechanical magic and trickery, such as objects that appeared to move of their own accord.


Like his older 16th-century fellow astrologer Nostradamus, Dee found fame with aristocrats and monarchs and created a reputation that went far beyond England’s borders.


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